After death of former Penguin, focus turns to neck protection in youth hockey

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Tuesday, October 31, 2023 | 6:09 PM


Penn-Trafford coach Chris Cerutti will be keeping an extra-close eye on his players as they take the ice for their next game against Armstrong.

He will be making sure each player is wearing protection around his neck in light of the tragedy last weekend involving former Penguins player Adam Johnson, who died after his neck was cut by an opponent’s skate.

Before Monday’s games, the commissioner of the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Hockey League, Tom Halaburka, sent out a memo to every team, on-ice official and game coordinator in the league, reminding them about the protection rules that are in place.

Those rules include mandatory mouthpieces and neck guards.

“The memo was pretty straightforward and the rules need to be followed,” Cerutti said. “We actually talked to the players about it before we took the ice. There is increased awareness about player safety.

“Some players don’t like to wear them, but now they have to learn to adjust.”

In the wake of Johnson’s death, momentum seems to be building to make neck guards mandatory at all levels of hockey.

The Penguins mandated Tuesday that their prospects with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the American Hockey League and Wheeling of the ECHL wear neck and wrist guards to prevent cuts to vulnerable parts of the body.

They will also recommend such measures to players on the NHL roster. No mandate can be made to NHL players without the approval of the NHL Players’ Association, though that approval might be on its way.

During a Tuesday interview with SiriusXM’s NHL Network Radio, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said commissioner Gary Bettman has been in contact with players union chief Marty Walsh to talk about the use of neck guards. The league now strongly recommends players wear them.

“If the NHL ever mandates it, it will happen across the board,” Deer Lakes coach Jonathan Merlo predicted. “USA Hockey highly recommends the use of neck guards, but the PIHL requires players to wear the neck guard, and a player could receive a misconduct penalty if they don’t comply. Not every league requires the neck guard.

“I know it’s uncomfortable to wear, but it doesn’t matter. What occurred to Adam was an eye-opening event, and it shows why wearing a neck guard is important.”

Cerutti and Merlo said hockey undergarment companies are selling turtlenecks with neck protection included.

“They are legal to wear,” Cerutti said. “They are making it easier for the players to comply.”

Franklin Regional coach John Winebrenner said many of his players already have ordered the cut-resistant turtleneck that is made with Kevlar fiber.

“It’s the same material that NHL hockey socks are made of,” Winebrenner said.

Winebrenner noted the push to make neck protection mandatory picked up steam after a high school hockey player in Connecticut died after having his neck cut by a skate last year.

“Bottom line: the governing body (USA Hockey) needs to mandate it instead of highly recommending it, just like they did for helmets and mouthpieces for concussions,” he said.

Robert Morris men’s hockey coach Derek Schooley said he feels Johnson’s death will have an impact on player safety.

“It was a freak accident,” Schooley said. “We’re playing in boots with knives on the bottom of our feet. I believe there will be a discussion at all levels on players’ safety. Wearing a neck guard doesn’t take away from your toughness.”

Pittsburgh Amateur Hockey League president Glen Scholze said the league follows the USA Hockey guidelines.

He added the league’s executive board will discuss protection policies moving forward.

“We’re working for the more than 5,000 players in the league,” Scholze said. “Before we ever make a change, it will be presented to all the team officials to be voted on. I believe this will revive the topic on what measures should be taken.

“It doesn’t hurt to protect the neck area. Would a neck guard have protected what happened to Adam? I’m not sure. It wouldn’t have hurt.”

Schooley called his equipment manager this week and told him to send out a text to the players to see if any wanted to order a neck guard.

“We ordered three,” Schooley said, “and I’m sure we might order more.”

Paul Schofield is a TribLive reporter covering high school and college sports and local golf. He joined the Trib in 1995 after spending 15 years at the Daily Courier in Connellsville, where he served as sports editor for 14 years. He can be reached at pschofield@triblive.com.

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